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Chronicle of a Death Foretold

THE FEAST OF THE GOAT, A Novel, By Mario Vargas Llosa, Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 404 pp., $25

November 11, 2001|MADISON SMARTT BELL | Madison Smartt Bell is the author of "Master of the Crossroads" and "All Souls' Rising."

Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has conducted his career as artist and intellectual in a climate--late 20th century Latin America--where art and ideas make material differences and often have a price in blood and death. A failure as a politician--he ran unsuccessfully for president of Peru in 1990--he is one of our greatest and most influential novelists. His new novel confirms his importance. In the world of fiction his continued exploration of the often-perilous intersection of politics and life has enriched 20th century literature. Some of his best novels ("Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" and, most recently, "The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto") have little to do with anything specifically political, while his indubitable masterpiece, "The War of the End of the World," removes its political concerns from any contemporary context. His more direct addresses to the politics of his time and region ("The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta," "Death in the Andes") have been somewhat less artistically successful--as if defeated by the enormity of the history which provides their occasion.

One cannot imagine a larger, more awful occasion than that for Vargas Llosa's "The Feast of The Goat": the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, where the most frightening possibilities of personal dictatorship were made undeniably real. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was, like a number of other Latin American strongmen, trained by the U.S. Marines. In 1927, he became general in chief of the Dominican army and, in 1930, president of the Dominican Republic. For the next 30 years, he exercised absolute power over his country, sometimes as president, always as generalissimo. On May 30, 1961, he was assassinated by members of the Dominican military, acting with some very modest assistance from the CIA. Vargas Llosa's novel is closely concentrated on this last day of his life.

"The Feast of The Goat" is constructed in three converging plot lines. One follows Trujillo himself from dawn to dark on the day of his death. Another, much more radically compressed, picks up the group of "executioners" (as they were later to be termed) as they wait in their cars on the San Cristobal Highway for Trujillo to pass on his way to an evening of debauchery at his Fundacion Ranch. These two plot lines and all their characters are faithfully and minutely based on the historical record, while the third, along with its characters, is apparently fictional; set 35 years later, it describes the visit of a Dominican exile, Urania Cabral, to her father, Augustin Cabral, once an important figure in the Trujillo regime, to whom she has not spoken since 1961.

This structure seems cumbersome at first. The characters waiting to shoot Trujillo are numerous and don't have enough time to develop; they have to tell us about themselves through long reflections on their pasts and by reciting exposition to one another. This plot line is crosscut, in the manner of a suspense thriller, with the day-in-the-life narrative following Trujillo toward his meeting with his killers, but since the reader is apt to know that the attempt was successful, the actual suspense is slight. Meanwhile, the crosscutting with Urania's narrative, as she picks her way toward the revelation of a grisly family secret interred shortly before Trujillo's death, feels awkwardly contrived. Still, laborious as it seems in the beginning, this difficult structure pays off extremely well in the second half of the book; like Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano," "The Feast of the Goat" needs to be read twice through for its design to be fully appreciated.

Vargas Llosa's characterization of Trujillo is compelling. At 70, he rises at 4 a.m. to exercise fiercely for an hour before dawn. Having ignored a diagnosis of prostate cancer, he has lost control of his bladder and so must keep a change of clothing always near at hand. He is much concerned with his sexual potency, and the assertion of his sexual will is scrambled in his mind with the assertion of his political power. Maintaining his position is a pressing problem for Trujillo on the day of his death.

Conditioned by the U.S. military occupation of his country during his youth, Vargas Llosa's Trujillo is walking on eggshells to avoid another invasion. Still he seems to have plenty of time for megalomaniacal vagaries. He drags a chief general, Jose Rene "Pupo" Roman, to rub his nose in a leaking sewer pipe outside the San Isidro Air Base--an object lesson in the importance of keeping up appearances. Though his regime is in crisis, Trujillo has spent the last few weeks converting one of his most important cohorts, Augustin Cabral, into a nonperson as a merely capricious "loyalty test." Such testing brings out the most imaginative sadism of Trujillian terror; one of the executioners, Amado Garcia Guerrero, has been maneuvered into killing the brother of his girlfriend (whom Trujillo refused him permission to marry). The novel bulges with this kind of horror story.

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